Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds
Having read all the full-length novels in Alastair Reynolds’ REVELATION SPACE series, I knew I’d eventually get to his shorter works set in the same dark and complex universe. The main novels are Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Chasm City, Absolution Gap, and The Prefect. Reynolds has produced a detailed future history, inspired by works such as Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, Larry Niven’s KNOWN SPACE, and Iain M. Banks’ CULTURE novels, and the stories in Galactic North (2006) fill in important details and serve as memorable tales of post-humans in a cold and inhospitable universe. When I read Reynolds‘ full-length works last year, one of my biggest complaints was that they were overlong, turgidly-paced, and heavy on exposition. Those problems are largely absent from this collection — these stories are action-packed, dense, and effective. They revolve around morally-complex, highly-augmented mercenaries, hive-mind humans, conflicted ships captains, ruthless pirates, and scientists, and often pack a nasty punch at the end — this is not a forgiving galaxy for humans of any kind. But when you get used it, it really draws you in. Now that I understand the chronology and scale of his universe better, I appreciate the events of the novels more. As with all Alastair Reynolds’ audiobooks, the stories are narrated well by John Lee, whose dignified British delivery is a good fit for his work.
Reynolds’ milieu is fully developed. Mankind has colonized many worlds in our part of the galaxy, but has not developed FTL technology, so star travel is frequently done while in hibernation (“reefer sleep”), and the level of cybernetic technology has split humanity into a number of sub-groups, including Demarchists (moderately-augmented humans that practice real-time democracy via neural implants), Ultras (highly-augmented cyborg humans), and Conjoiners (mentally-linked humans with hive-mind traits). Humanity has also encountered the remains of many dead alien civilizations, illustrating Fermi’s Paradox of why we have not been contacted by other alien species despite the billions of potentially-habitable worlds in the universe. The stories are ordered in a rough chronology ranging from 2,205 CE in “Great Wall of Mars” to 40,000 CE at the end of “Galactic North.” These are the stories in the collection:
“Great Wall of Mars:” This is the earliest story in Reynold’s future chronology, the pivotal story of Nevil Clavain, a prominent figure in the main REVELATION SPACE series, and Galiana, the founder of the Conjoiner movement. It’s a tense tale of the fight between Coalitionists, Demarchists, and a rebel group led by Galiana holed up on Mars. The Earth forces have the rebels pinned down in their fortified construct (the “Great Wall”) which extends deep underground. Clavain and Galiana are ostensibly enemies, but events conspire to force them together, and a young girl with severe brain damage plays a surprising role. The first-hand description of the Conjoiners’ collective consciousness is fascinating, and the story is action-packed and gripping.
“Glacial:” This takes place shortly after the previous story, as Clavain and Galiana arrive on an ice planet named Diadem, where they discover an abandoned Earth colony in which the colonists have all died after apparently going insane. They find one survivor who has jury-rigged a form of cryo-stasis, and revive him enough to question what happened. His story sounds fairly plausible, but Clavain has a nagging suspicion some details don’t add up. This is a fairly typical SF setup — the abandoned colony, mysterious deaths, and a suspicious survivor. But to Reynolds’ credit, he adds in some interesting alien biology about ice-worms, and the resolution of the mystery was a surprise to me.
“A Spy in Europa:” This is a short but intense story of an undercover agent who goes to a city situated under the ice sheet covering Europa. He is embroiled in the power struggle between the Demarchists (controlling Europa) and the Gilgamesh Isis (who control Ganymede and Callisto). He undergoes dramatic surgical alteration to be equipped with gills to survive in the freezing waters under the ice, and sets out to discover crucial secrets that will aid his side and undermine the Demarchists, but encounters some unexpected beings instead, who seem to be allies at first…
“Weather:” This is one of the best stories of the collection. It’s about Inigo, the shipmaster of the Ultra ship Petronel, which is attacked by pirates while transporting colonists in cryosleep. By a stroke of improbable cosmic luck, the pirate threat is eliminated and they find a lone Conjoiner woman being held prisoner. She has a name that is completely incomprehensible to baseline humans, but since it’s origin is from the gas cloud formations of Jupiter, he calls her “Weather.“
Inigo tries to establish a friendship with Weather though she is technically a prisoner, but the Captain distrusts her deeply as a Conjoiner due to events in his own past. But when the Petronel is pursued by a sinister stealth ship and needs to escape, they discover that the Conjoiner drive is damaged and no baseline humans or Ultras have the ability to repair it. It’s an ingenious aspect of Reynolds’ universe — the Conjoiners have mastered near-lightspeed travel and have shared it with other human groups, but refuse to reveal the secrets of its working. The slightest tampering will result in the entire engine going supernova and destroying the ship and everything nearby. All of a sudden, the Conjoiner woman’s cooperation is the only thing that can save them…
“Dilation Sleep:” This is apparently the first story written by Reynolds in his REVELATION SPACE universe. It’s a shorter tale of a man who wakes from cryosleep aboard a ship that is fleeing the Melding Plague that has overrun Yellowstone (these events are covered in greater detail in Chasm City). He did not remove the neural implants that make him vulnerable to the plague, but did make a digital copy of his wife, whose simulation tells him he needs to operate on one of the other passengers immediately. I thought this was one of weaker stories, which may reflect it being one of the earliest written.
“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary:” This is a dark and baroque tale of wealthy and decadent collectors of rare and freakish creatures in Chasm City. Grafenwalder is the most renowned collector, and he deeply covets something that will impress his little circle. Initially he manages to acquire a live adult-sized hamadryad (a creature also featured in Chasm City), but later gets whiff of something even more rare and valuable — a living specimen of a genetically-engineered human-fish hybrid first created on Europa many years back. He gets a DNA sample from his dealer which seems legitimate, and arranges the purchase. When he gets his prized specimen he can’t wait to show it off to his closest rival, with unexpected results…
“Nightingale:” This is a novella-length story of a group of mercenaries sent to track down a criminal accused of war crimes. An team of mercenaries is gathered (one of Reynolds’ favorite themes), the usual assemblage of highly-augmented Ultras and baseline humans. They get wind that their target, Colonel Brandon Jax, may be hiding out on an abandoned hospital ship called Nightingale. During the war on Sky’s Edge, this ship was in charge of healing soldiers on both sides of the conflict, but since the war ended it has been left untended.
However, when they arrive on the ship, it seems to be functioning more than should be the case for a derelict. Before you can say “Aliens or The Expanse,” it’s time to explore the ship’s innards. The team find increasingly strange activities aboard the ship, and when they encounter the AI intelligence running the ship, they’re in for a very nasty surprise…
“Galactic North:” This is another highlight of the collection, a wide-ranging novella that spans many centuries and covers many epochs of Reynolds’ future history, starting in 2,303 but ending far in the future around 40,000, covering some of the climactic events mentioned in Absolution Gap, the final book of the main REVELATION SPACE trilogy. At the end of that book, we learn of a new threat to the galaxy innocuously named Greenflies, but there are few details. In fact I found it quite frustrating for this to be introduced at the end of a massive trilogy (around 2,000 pages in total) along with several other mysterious alien presences and not enough explanation. Well, “Galactic North” explains what the Greenflies are and how they came to threaten the galaxy.
The story centers on Captain Irravel Veda, who is ambushed by pirates when making an unplanned stop for repairs. She is guarding two types of valuable cargo — 20,000 colonists in cryosleep, and terraforming Von Neumann machines called Greenflies. They fall under the control of the sadistic hyperpig Run Seven (yeah, don’t ask). He manages to pry the security codes via torture and trickery and flees with the cargo (why do badguys always leave their enemies alive, one might wonder?). What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase through time and space as Irravel pursues the pirates to get revenge.
Meantime, the Greenfly machines have malfunctioned and are dismantling every star system they encounter to build artificial habitats complete with plant-life (hence their name). Sounds great, except they destroy everything in their paths and don’t make exceptions for sentient beings or civilizations. It’s a particularly Reynolds-type of implacable disaster. Despite all the might of various space-faring civilizations, there isn’t much that even ancient races like the Nest Builders or Inhibitors can do but flee to the far reaches of the universe. There are some overlaps with Absolution Gap, but I’d be lying if I said there was total closure in this story.